September 8, 2017

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To Kill a Death's Shadow: Winning Modern

When Mike was nearly at thirteen, the Death's Shadow looked barely broken as a card. When his life total plummeted, and Mike's fears of never being able to play the Death's Shadow were assuaged, he gleefully summoned forth the cheap creature. His Gurmag Angler was somewhat smaller than the Death's Shadow, the closer to zero his life total became, and other times his Snapcaster Mage was larger than the Death's Shadow. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and not punt.

To play Modern, or not to play Modern, that is the question. While I may not have the eloquence of William Shakespeare, I hope you can catch my drift. I've never thought very highly of the format, and can still count the number of times I've played Modern on both hands.

Initially, the format seemed largely about matchups and your tournament would depend on hitting the right ones. Many articles and tournament reports I've read provided confirmation bias, because that's exactly what I was expecting to find. It's a format of rock-paper-scissors. The idea of sitting down to a match and being such a massive underdog is not appealing to me.

Then, last week I read an interesting article by Magic's current World Champion, Brian Braun-Duin. I suggest reading it, but roughly paraphrasing, he discusses his belief that there are different skill sets that lead to success in most of the formats of Magic. I'm always looking to improve my game and the World Champion has to have some valid points, right?

It was a Friday night when I starting chatting to my buddy, Drake Honess, from North Bay. There was a Modern open at the Wizard's Tower the following morning, and I was open to giving the format a chance. Since Drake has a really good handle on Modern metagame, I asked for some deck advice.

I had three options: Jeskai Control, the new Vengevine deck, and Grixis Shadow. Jeskai was just "fine", which meant I'd probably need to know a lot about the format to try and gain an edge in game play. The Vengevine deck is a real cannon, but variance was a real issue. It could be great, or it could be totally bad. On the other hand, Grixis Shadow gives a person the most lines of game play. That sounded an awful lot like Legacy. Sold!

This was the list Drake recommended. Specifically having two Blood Crypt in the main, and at least one By Force in the side. The World Champ said that sometimes a lot of games are decided by powerful sideboard cards. This idea seems to be more prevalent in Modern than other formats, but there are plenty of sideboard cards in Legacy and Vintage that perform the same role of dominating games.

The By Force is a prime example of powerful sideboard cards. Against Affinity and Lantern Control, this is an all-star destroyer. I'd say it's Imperial Class, and as long as I'm casting it and not a Stormtrooper, it has a real chance at hitting some important cards. Let's get into the tournament section and see if I could do that!

Round One vs Scapeshift: Fight!

Game One:

This was a quick one. I opened a hand with lands, threats, and discard. Being on the play, I immediately bolted myself by cracking a Polluted Delta for a Watery Grave. Dropping to fifteen life, I cast a Thoughtseize to find out my opponent was on Scapeshift combo. A second Thoughtseize on turn two followed by some large beaters ended this game quickly.

Sideboarding: -4 Fatal Push, -2 Kolaghan's Command, -1 Terminate, +2 Collective Brutality, +1 Surgical Extraction, +1 Disdainful Stroke, +2 Liliana of the Veil, +1 Stubborn Denial

Game Two:

The same things happened. On the draw, I played the same cards as game one. I lost five life, and was able to snag a Scapeshift with the Thoughtseize. There were maybe two or three more turns, and I managed both my life total and the size of the Death's Shadow with a Collective Brutality. I stayed safely out of range and dealt the final points of damage.

1-0, 2-0

Round Two vs Merfolk: Fight!

Game One:

I actually knew what my opponent was on before the game started. I thought it was going to be a tough match, but the combination of removal and my opponent's draws ended it really quickly. When Kolaghan's Command eats your best creature and an Aether Vial in one shot, it's hard to come back. My bigger creatures caused a one-sided The Abyss and the game quickly ended.

Sideboarding: -2 Stubborn Denial, +1 Engineered Explosives, +1 Collective Brutality

Game Two:

This was a repeat of game one, except I landed an early Gurmag Angler and put pressure on quickly. It was simply a case of the cards lining up well versus my opponent, and he never drew a Harbinger of the Tides to bounce my delve creature.

2-0, 4-0

Round Three vs Burn: Fight!

Game One:

Starting on the play was one step in the right direction. I landed an early Thoughtseize as I had a Death's Shadow to play. Given he was on burn, it was only a short time later when it came down. It's a tricky line to stay at enough life to end the game, but I dropped to one life to be able to hit for lethal.

Sideboarding: -4 Street Wraith,  +1 Engineered Explosives, +1 Stubborn Denial, +2 Collective Brutality

Game Two:

I just couldn't find my big guys in time. I tried to make do with Snapcaster Mages, but they both died too easily and didn't deal damage fast enough. Got busted fast.

Game Three:

Runed Halo ruined my game three. Those powerful sideboard cards can sometimes swing a match. My Death's Shadow got shut down and I couldn't find a way through. Good on my opponent.

2-1, 5-2

Round Four vs Abzan Shadow: Fight!

Game One:

This was a real barn burner. I was able to Thoughtseize for value early on and get two Death's Shadow on the table. My opponent was able to match that pretty quickly, but mine were larger, and he had to do some chump blocking. Then I got to see how well his version could grind. Ranger of Eos grabbed two more copies! In the end, the board was cleared and a Street Wraith was at work on both sides. With each of us at one life, my opponent had to cast a Maelstrom Pulse to survive. It was a great laugh, and I came out the victor when I drew Kolaghan's Command.

Sideboarding: -2 Stubborn Denial, -2 Kolaghan's Command, +1 Nihil Spellbomb, +2 Liliana of the Veil, +1 Liliana, the Last Hope

Game Two:

Being on the draw was rough. He jumped out ahead on the play, but I started my first turn with Thoughtseize. His hand was juicy stocked and mine couldn't compete with it. I did nab a Liliana of the Veil which is a tough card to handle from the Grixis side. He also had Lingering Souls which provided too many blockers for me to handle. Not only that, when I managed to gum up the ground, those flying spirits dealt the last points of damage.

Game Three:

It felt like an intense game, and my opponent brought the heat. Liliana of the Veil played a big part we squeaked it under the wire. My opponent was a bit too aggressive with his spirits this game, and I found removal for his blocker to let my Death's Shadow go in for lethal.

3-1, 6-3

Round Five vs Intentional Draw: Fight!

3-1-1, 6-3-3

Quarterfinals vs Ponza: Fight!

Game One:

It seemed like the key to this matchup was not letting my opponent keep an Arbor Elf alive. That plus resolving an early Tasigur, the Golden Fang. From there, managing the ramp and land destruction spells with Thoughtseize and Stubborn Denial closed the game quickly.

Sideboarding: -1 Kolaghan's Command, -1 Street Wraith, +1 Stubborn Denial, +1 Disdainful Stroke

Game Two:

This is a game where Thoughtseize could not stop all of the cards and options from my opponent. He managed to resolve a turn two Blood Moon and eventually a Wurmcoil Engine and Inferno Titan. GG.

Game Three:

Turn two Gurmag Angler baby. That went all the way and fast.

4-1-1, 8-4-3

Semi-finals vs Burn: Fight!

Game One:

Huge game here. Finally, I drew multiple discard spells that weren't all Thoughtseize. Double Inquisition of Kozilek managed to whittle down his burn spells and keep me at a reasonable life total. I keep a Street Wraith in hand to use at the right moment to grow my Death's Shadow to lethal.

Sideboarding: -4 Street Wraith,  +1 Engineered Explosives, +1 Stubborn Denial, +2 Collective Brutality

Game Two:

Again that dratted Runed Halo wrecked face. It kept me at bay long enough for him to win the race easily.

Game Three:

This time, two copies of Runed Halo landed. With a Death's Shadow rotting in hand, I landed a Liliana of the Veil. Using Kolaghan's Command on my opponent's draw step, I managed to keep him from casting spells for two turns until I could ultimate Lili. I separated the Runed Halos with a land, and my opponent chose the other pile of lands. Then I cast the Death's Shadow and the game ended soon after.

5-1-1, 10-5-3

Finals vs Grixis Shadow: Fight!

Game One:

I was on the play and promptly mulliganed. While I had none of my beaters, I gamely tried to stay in it with a few removal spells and cantrips. With a far more powerful hand, my opponent easily navigated his way to victory. Seeing zero black creatures hurt!

Sideboarding: -2 Stubborn Denial, -2 Kolaghan's Command, +1 Nihil Spellbomb, +2 Liliana of the Veil, +1 Liliana, the Last Hope

Game Two:

I got off to a decent start with a Thoughtseize. My opponent's hand wasn't all that strong. There's a weird tension when you have a Snapcaster Mage in play. It doesn't deal enough damage, and might actually help your opponent grow their creature faster than your own. The game ended as most of the mirror matches apparently do. I finished at three life and dealt the remaining five to my opponent.

Game Three:

When you land a Liliana of the Veil in the mirror, you are favoured immensely. After a bit of a back and forth, I had a Gurmag Angler and Lili. My opponent had some lands, no hand, and an empty board. With both a Snapcaster Mage and a Terminate in hand, the Gurmag Angler rumbled in for the last points of damage.

6-1-1, 12-6-3


Thanks to some inspiring words from our Magic World Champ, I tried Modern again and was rewarded handsomely. While I can't say that I'm very familiar with the format yet, I won't be so hesitant to play Modern in the future. Developing a stronger knowledge of Modern is key to understanding what you might face both in the main deck and from sideboards.

Grixis Shadow really feels like a Legacy deck. It follows the Turbo Xerox idea of lower land counts and cantrips to find what you need. The creatures and disruption spells are also very low casting cost due to delve. While you do a lot of damage to yourself in a hurry, it enables you to beatdown with one of the craziest creatures in Death's Shadow.

Even while playing Death's Shadow in my own deck, I had to fight my way through a lot of them myself. It felt appropriate to do a little parody of To Kill a Mockingbird by author Harper Lee to begin this piece.

Until next time, don't let your land base bolt you! (Unless you play Grixis Shadow!)